While proposals to turn green-leaning Washington state into a major exporter of coal to China have caused an uproar in coastal communities, the heated debate is largely absent from other places along the industry’s expected trade route to Asia.
The state and federal agencies that are conducting an environmental review of five proposed coal-export terminals in the region aren’t planning to give residents of one of Washington state’s major population centers a chance to comment on the project publicly, even as such meetings take place in similar-sized or smaller communities elsewhere.
As a result, officials and residents in south central Washington aren’t exactly sure what they stand to gain or lose.
In the Tri-Cities, a cluster of towns along the Columbia River with a combined population of 190,000, the few local officials who knew about the projects said they weren’t concerned.
“We’ve just kind of learned to live with the train delays,” said Mike Harris, a deputy fire chief in Benton County, which includes Kennewick, the largest of the three cities.
But the Yakama Nation, which has lands in south central Washington where residents are three hours from any of the scheduled meetings, would like more information on what the projects might mean for tribal communities.
“Having a closer meeting would definitely give people an opportunity to wrap their arms around what’s being proposed,” said Emily Washines, a spokeswoman for the tribe.
U.S. coal operators, facing declining domestic demand, want to build five export terminals in the Northwest to ship coal to China and other global markets where demand is stronger. Supporters, including business and labor groups, say jobs and the economy are at stake and urge quick approval.
But these proposals face strong resistance from environmental groups and Indian tribes that say a tidal wave of coal shipments will bring more noise and pollution and will disturb tribal fishing grounds and cultural sites. They want the review to include the impacts on communities from the mines to the ports, especially whether the trains will worsen air and water quality and blanket the region with coal dust or block first responders from reaching emergencies.
In July, a coal train derailed in Mesa, a rural village north of the Tri-Cities. No one was injured, and the spilled coal was cleaned up quickly, but the incident became a rallying cry for opponents of the project as an example of what could go wrong.
“Along the Columbia River, it’s cliff, highway, railroad, then river,” Paul Lumley, the executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said in September. “Our communities are wedged between the railroad and the river. We’ve got nowhere to escape.”
In contrast to the outcry in northwest Washington over road-crossing delays, Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, a 30-year veteran, said he didn’t see much to worry about.
“I think the frustration to the average motorist may be a little higher,” he said.
Train traffic and environmental hazards are familiar in the Tri-Cities. Pasco, just across the river from Kennewick, is a regional hub on BNSF, a Fort Worth, Texas, rail company with lines across the Western United States. Richland, the smallest of the three cities, is near the Hanford Site, which produced plutonium for the atom bombs that ended World War II and later required an extensive cleanup of nuclear waste.
The railroad employs about 300 people in the area, and many local industries depend on it to ship their products.
BNSF already transports some coal through the Tri-Cities, and the volume might increase substantially if the largest of the five terminals is built. The Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham could export as much as 54 million tons a year at full capacity. That’s double the U.S. coal-export total for all of last year.
Suann Lundsberg, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the railroad would use all three of its main routes across Washington to ship coal. But two of those lines have steep mountain grades, and it’s likely that most of the heavy coal trains would follow an easier path along the Columbia River west from the Tri-Cities.
Opponents are pressing the three agencies that will review the Gateway Pacific project to consider the impacts on every community, from mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to shoreline near the port.
“The reason that we’ve been calling for this is that there’s so many areas impacted,” said Krista Collard, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. “When people learn about this issue, they are solidly in our camp.”
Supporters and opponents have dueled in a series of meetings held by the Washington Department of Ecology, the Army Corps of Engineers and Whatcom County, where the Gateway Pacific Terminal would be built. The public comment process is part of an environmental impact statement, a federal requirement for any large-scale project.
One meeting was Tuesday in Spokane, and there’ll be two more this month, in Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.
Larry Altose, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology, welcomed other residents to submit comments online.
“While it won’t be possible to conduct a meeting in every community, we have established a website that includes all the materials displayed at the seven community meetings,” Altose said.
But Washines said not everyone in tribal communities had Internet access, and that even for those who were connected, the material might not help them understand the projects.
“A lot of information is coming across very quickly and at a highly technical reporting level,” she said. “It doesn’t resonate with locals.”